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‘I’m at the station,’ reads the text message, ‘Where are you?’

I stab a reply. ‘At the station, too. Where are you?’

Simon and I have driven to Formby beach. It’s minus 5 outside but here in the car it’s as steamy as an afternoon in the Malaysian rainforest. The heating has been cranked up so much that a snoozing Milo has red hot cheeks. Candyfloss tufts of blonde hair stick to his sweaty head.

Everything had been going so well. Despite a late start, due, in the main, to having to put on several hundred vests, tops, jumpers, fleeces, hats, scarves and extra socks, we’d managed to get to Formby just in time. The plan was to pick up Zoe at the station and then whisk us all up the short, straight road that leads to the beach. Except I can’t see Zoe anywhere.

I call her. As we both tell each other that yes, we really are at the station and no, I can’t see you, something occurs to me.

‘Which station are you at?’

‘Formby.’

I look up at the station platform. It says ‘Freshfield’. I’ve told Zoe to get off at the wrong station, blithely assuming that the station I remember – from years ago, when as a Liverpool student I used to bring my dog here – was Formby. I tell her to stay put, and then we drive around Formby, trying to find the world’s shyest station. There’s not a sign in sight; in the end, we follow the direction of the train tracks and, eventually, stumble across it.

‘We are here,’ I text. ‘Where are you?’

‘At the car park.’

We drive over the humpback bridge to the car park. There’s no sign of Zoe.

‘There must be another car park,’ I mutter.

The car is now so sauna-like that Milo has woken up, as hot and grumpy as his mother. We turn the car around and drive back over the bridge. Suddenly, to our left, I spot another car park and yelp, ‘there it is!’ as Simon calmly drives on. We turn left. There’s no car park.

‘But I saw it,’ I whine, and Simon gives me a look which I suspect says something along the lines of oh for god’s sake, this is bad enough without you starting on me.

Simon pulls over and I run out of the car and down a road that must, I think, lead to the station. It’s a dead end. I run back, and Simon turns the car around. We drive back over the humpback bridge. We still can’t see Zoe.

‘Are you sure she meant this station?’ asks Simon.

I count to ten. We turn the car around the drive back over the bridge. This time, Simon turns right, parks and tells me to walk to the station and sod the car park. I take his advice and, just by the platform, find Zoe. I vow never, ever again to drive to Formby Station.

Later, we all pile out of the car and go for the coldest walk in Milo’s living memory. He doesn’t care, and neither do I: we are so well wrapped up that the frozen sand dunes, icy white in the bright winter sun, seem as sweet as ice cream. In fact, when Milo falls head first into the sand, he just lies there, apparently happy to be face down among the dunes. When I roll him over, the damp grains stick to his cheeks. They are a worrying shade of purple – like corned beef, only darker.

It’s at that point we decide to head back to the car, crank up the heating and drive to the station. As we wave goodbye to Zoe, I repeat to myself, like a naughty schoolgirl writing out lines: the station nearest Formby beach is called Freshfield, the station nearest Formby beach is called Freshfied. I might have it tattooed on my person as an aide memoire, somewhere painful perhaps.

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Ratings. Babychanging facilities: No. Cafe: No. Buggy-friendly? No. Cost: Free to National Trust members, small fee for the car park for non-members. Worth it? Yes, Formby has it all: sand dunes, a wood, red squirrels and then the vast, flat expanse of beach and sea.

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Back in the early 90s I lived in a knackered old mansion house in Liverpool. It overlooked Sefton Park and had long since been given over by the landlord, Mr Hyland, to the ravages of student life. It had no central heating and was so filthy that my mum refused to sit down when she visited. Mr Hyland did stipulate no pets but enforced the rule so feebly that we didn’t hide the two dogs, two cats and several snakes who happily co-habited alongside the 12 human tenants. Our hippy dippy, techno-loving lifestyle was evident in the pets’ names: my dog was called Gaia, while Claire’s cats were Ozric and Marley.

Gaia was a terror. Rescued from the streets of Liverpool, his first act upon becoming ‘my’ dog was to wee on my leg. Followed swiftly by doing likewise all through the house. He also chewed through anything plastic, once ate a kilo tub of Flora and would regularly go through the bins as he scavenged for food. He was and remained bloody-minded, disobedient and entirely his own canine. I taught him to swim by chucking him in the lake at Sefton Park after he’d rolled in something, um, ‘unpleasant’ for the fifth time in a week. I came home from work once to discover that he’d rolled in the oily remnants of a burnt-out car (as I said, this was Liverpool in the early 90s, and the remains of joyriding were frequently etched into the scorched grass of Sefton Park). Steve had given up trying to wash out the oil and had begun shaving a now quivering and deeply sorry Gaia. He was rescued by a quick call to the vet, who recommended we try scrubbing him head to tail in Swarfega. Luckily for Gaia it worked, though the fur on his back legs never quite recovered.

The first time I took him to the beach – at Formby – he barked at the sea. After ascertaining that the sea wasn’t some giant grey monster, he went for a swim. He barked at some seaweed, before deciding that it, too, posed no threat. He then barked at a smooth grey rock protruding from the sand. He decided that this could well be an evil dog in disguise, so he scuttled off, growling and throwing nervous looks over his shoulder.

Gaia spent the autumn of his life in the People’s Republic of Chorlton. Our back ‘stoop’ was a prime spot for addling himself in the sun; the Mersey was perfect for swimming; he wrapped Simon round each of his four paws; and when I started working from home he had the kind of 24/7 company that every dog dreams of. It was good for me, too: if a client gave me grief, I’d get off the phone and search out G, bury my face in his smelly, silky fur and think, ah, things ain’t so bad.

Last Sunday, Gaia was reunited with his full pack. Mum, dad, me, Simon, Milo and Milly went for a walk around Astley Green, a former colliery and now a place of canals, soggy wetland walks, sticks and mud. The sun shone for the first time in an age. Gaia leapt into the pond after a stick, shook mud all over everyone and trotted contentedly about in a way we hadn’t seen in weeks. It turned out to be his last big hurrah – three days later he died, of cancer.

Gaia saw me through university, my first job, marriage and then a divorce, world travels, three degrees, house buying, starting a new life, a career change, self-employment and a baby. Whatever you think about dogs, this one was as much a part of my life as friends and family. I’m not terribly sentimental. I always thought I’d be entirely pragmatic about his demise: he was only a dog, after all. But here I am, crying my eyes out, missing him terribly.

He was an old sod – belligerent, smelly and naughty to the last. Without him my life will no doubt be easier. My house will be tidier. I won’t have to wipe the mud off the walls, or sweep up the great fur balls that gathered in every corner like canine tumbleweed. We won’t have to walk him twice a day, every day, even when we’re tired or busy or it’s tipping it down with rain. But life without mud and trouble; I don’t know, it just looks a little less like fun.

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